Sunday, December 29, 2013

Review - D3 – Vault of the Drow

Lloth from D3
Written in 1978 by Gygax himself, and marked by his meticulous writing style, love of serious warnings about how hard things will be and gimping of certain spells, Vault of the Drow is pretty iconic. It's also pretty good, though better if one views it as a campaign source book then any sort of linear adventure module.

The first chunk of the module (continuing the D series methods) is a hex crawl through tunnels and caves, using a nodal map and geomorphs for random encounter areas. This is a lot of content in a little space, and it’s a solid way to do it. No keyed locations, but several tables of encounters. Unfortunately these encounters show a limited and minimalist understanding of what a random encounter can be. All the encounters are with monsters, and while some are Drow merchant caravans which are well detailed with giant pack lizards, evocative cargo, and slave lines, nothing really jumps out to provide atmospherics or wonderment one would like from wandering the underworld. Still this is an excellent hex crawl to cram into a few pages, and seems like the solid basis for the module. While it’s a bit odd that almost every monster in the random encounter table is Drow aligned, I suppose that this could be a cool feature, indicating the control and power of the evil elves underground empire.

The map and random encounters have a few small areas spread about (using specific geomorphs) that appear like they would be hard going for even a 10th level party, but since each is presumably tackled at full power I can’t say these locations are unfair. A nice thing about them is that the lighting and some description is often mentioned, and the treasure, while largely simply described, contains a few interesting items such a jeweled goblets and solid platinum scroll tubes – enough to work with. Magical items are similarly handled in this portion of the adventure, with at least a few unique magic items spread around (perhaps just to make things harder for the players, but interesting still). In general these small encounters, while very combat focused at least create some solid flavor for the decadent under empire of the Drow.  A Drow idol in a spider lair (while not the most deadly of these encounters) is a great set piece, where the fabulous treasure is more dangerous than the monsters within.

On to the Drow, they are a pretty iconic D&D monster, and one that still gets a lot of material about them (in possibly annoying ways). So the first note about the Drow in Vault of the Drow is “that these evil elves are hated and feared by the other intelligent races inhabiting the subterranean lands.” Yeah hated by mindflayers and Blibdoolpoolp worshiping fishmen. That’s a lot of hate, no misunderstood dark anti-heroes here. The Vault of the Drow goes to lengths to emphasize that the Drow are a corrupt and decadent people that hold themselves above everyone else and engage in perversion and depravity in some very gruesome ways. This is good, this is a solid 1970’s bad guy, not some conflicted sinister with a heart of gold, seductive evil kind of dark mirror society. The Drow are solidly, completely evil: with their enslaved bugbears, ghast minions, gladiatorial games, blood sacrifice and decadent society of infighting - they are also adequately explained. The Drow may be organized and militarized, likely able to expand and conquer the underdark, but they’re all backstabbing sociopaths, that haven’t really united as a polity. This division goes a long way to explain why the Drow are limited to their vault, and (as pointed out) why the party may be able to sneak in and wander about without meeting a coordinated military response. The rivalry and feuding atmosphere within the Drow vault is well hinted at in the random encounter tables without excessive backstory. Random encounters also do a decent job of portraying the Vault as a living space, with fungi harvesters, wild “animals”, escaped slaves, merchants, Drow raiders and Drow hunting parties. The Drow themselves are pretty dangerous, even if their bugbear and troglodyte minions shouldn’t present much trouble for a large 10th level party, additionally Drow’s tactics are often described and they act intelligently enough to defend themselves.

Original Drow Art
The vault itself is another hexcrawl, a map of large chambers with detailed encounter tables for each type of terrain and some keyed sites. This seems to be well done, and a few of the encounters (with wildlife or farm laborers) need not result in combat. It’s even conceivable (and hinted at in the text) that there is a great deal of room for subterfuge with the Drow (disguises, slave insurrection or even playing Drow factions against eachother). There are some descriptions in these areas (fungal forests scattered with crystal, the strange dome of the Drow) that do produce (or would produce if every 1990’s D&D supplement hadn’t stolen them) wonder. In general the detail is minimal, but good enough to provide strong visuals. Getting into the Drow city is thankfully not likely to be accomplished by assault, but through disguise, which provides a nice contrast.

The Drow City and associated dungeons, buildings are actually some of the weaker portions of the adventure. They are described in a limited manner, and while the random encounters within the city provide the party with potential allies that could help wreck Drow society, the Vault of the Drow from this point is less a hex crawl or dungeon module and more of a gazetteer, with the noble houses and merchant houses of the Drow lightly described, but no real adventure hooks or clear narrative possibilities. This isn’t a bad thing, but it makes for an odd change from the wilderness crawl before and could require a huge amount of GM work to run well. Personally this is where I’d pull out Vornheim or a similar city building set and twist it towards it’s most depraved and debauched. It may be that with the right party, the Drow capitol simply because the home base of further adventure and polticial intrigue, rather than something to topple. Indeed that seems preferable, as the process of ruining a city of 30,000 plus (a third of them magic using super-elves) would be a campaign in itself.

Contemporary Lloth
Lloth’s Egg, the ultimate goal of the module (though the why of that isn’t especially clear) is a reasonable size dungeon, with short descriptions that emphasize the area’s nature as an active and powerful temple to a demon spider goddess. The ships at anchor near the temple wharf with their spider silk sails and evil demon statute figureheads are an especially nice touch. It seems clear from the module's layout and hints within that the party is most likely to use social engineering, deception and party politics to get into Lloth's Egg and the Fane within, but the exact nature of this process is left up to GM imagination.   The temple contains Lloth (or perhaps her avatar) and battling the demon spider queen seems deadly. I think this is worth noting, that in AD&D 10th level characters should be fighting minor gods. Lloth is powerful, with a -10 AC, many immunities, some limited but nasty attacks and the ability can flood the room with giant spiders. She also has psionic powers that sound impressively powerful, but since I could never understand AD&D’s psionic rules I have no idea what to make of them. It’s not really clear why the party would want to tussle with a goddess, even an evil one, but presumably the adventurers, having gone through G 1-3 and D 1-3 will have a strong dislike for Lloth and her works. There are various ways within the Fane to find oneself trapped in Lloth abyssal homelands, but this is the only lead in to the next adventure in the series.

Not too many problems with this adventure – a vast underground world, described broadly but with a fair bit of detail and flair. A few bits of silly – such as the decaying magical equipment of the Drow, and various types of magical dark vision lens, but even these oddities ultimately have a rationale and make sense. Mostly it’s an overwhelming work, and while actually better laid out and described then the other underground civilization module I recently reviewed (B4 – Lost City), Vault of the Drow suffers from the same problem of wanting to do so much and leaving a lot of space to fill in. D3 could be expanded into an entire box set campaign world (oh wait it was), but there's enough here to run with. Also unlike Lost City it gives a lot of flavor without dumping useless statlines on the GM, the locations are largely exemplars rather then thin descriptions of the whole locale.  Additionally, I think Vault of the Drow has a lot going for it that was lost in the later additions to the Underdark, the Drow city is weird, alien, corrupt and filled with lawless depravity. That the Drow are presented as villains without redeeming features, but with a complex society and some rational order is great, they can be fought and make very competent enemies, but they can never really be allied with or coopted, and they will never accept the characters as equals. This is the first of these old modules that I really have to say I enjoyed and would find myself willing to run (though I think it’s a year worth of regular campaign material).

1 comment:

  1. I have this module but I've never run it. I have borrowed from it though, as it has a lot of good, er, evil ideas. As a player in an old AD&D campaign (about finding pieces of a magic rod), the party came up against Drow. Our arch enemy turned out to be a Drow, so we headed Underdark. Once there someone decided that disguise was the best course of action. While our characters were using magic paint, it was discovered that one of the players was running... a... (you guessed it). Eleanor was the DM's wife, so we should've worked that out earlier.